Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back in November, at a gathering at my house, one of our (younger) friends suggested that I should get on Twitter. When I explained that I didn't "get" twitter, the friendly conversation quickly devolved into a tense discussion about the merits of abbreviated statements as a substitute for lengthy prose, which futher devolved into an argument about the younger generation's inability to read thoroughly and critically, which ended with a lot of hurt feelings about the generational differences between those born in the 70s and those born in the 80s and later. I tried to explain that the "millenial generation" often struggles with an ability to process information in larger quantities and that this was a result of changes in education, changes in the media, and the accessibility of various technologies.
In the end, I was the person with the most hurt feelings--I had been putting a lot of thought & research into why my younger students were becoming increasingly harder to reach and I didn't feel like my friends were giving me my "rightful" consideration as an educator with firsthand experience. The following blog is a re-vamped facebook note that followed the heated argument from the night before. Months later, I can see that I was probably way too sensitive and yet, I still believe that every word I said that night (and in this diatribe) was right on the mark.
Generational Differences
People are shaped by the major events and innovations of the time period in which they grow up it and live. Although that does not mean that everyone born in the 1930s is exactly the same; it does mean that people that grew up during the Great Depression will likely be influenced by the feelings that accompanied that time period. That is why we name generations in the first place. I don't think anyone can dispute that those growing up in the 1930s share similar values and experiences, just as those growing up in the wake of WWII share similarities, just as those who were young during the 9/11 attacks see the world differently than we did at their age. Does it make them exactly alike? Of course not! But it does shape them in a way that they experience the world with some similar approaches.
Although it might seem that people who were born in the 1970s should all be a part of one generation, it doesn't exactly work that way specifically because of the technological advances that happened during that time period. There is a great book on this that might be interesting to read. It is Generation Y: Surviving and Thriving with Gen Y at Work. In the book, Peter Sheahan differentiates between those born in the early 1970s and the later parts of the decade. He outlines various reasons for the differences and they go way beyond whether people had a home computer or cable tv. It is an in-depth look at the entire sociological spectrum--all aspects of how we are shaped as human beings. Again, this doesn't mean that people born in the 1970s are not in the same generation; it means that people born at different times in the decade might be separated in world approaches b/c of the rapid changes that were happening during that time period.
The News
The idea of my not "getting" Twitter is based on my own personal preference and my complete identification with people growing up in the 1970s in the type of household in which I grew up. That is to say that not only were cable news and home computers not a part of daily life, but I was conditioned in a way that might have negated their impact, even if they had. I read books voraciously and I was surrounded by adults who read newspapers and newsmagazines and discussed the news in a full, in-depth manner. In other words, had I only read a headline and tried to get in on a conversation, my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles would have demanded that I have a full grasp of the situation before attempting to enter a conversation. This forced me to read news in its entirety, thus disallowing me from being satisfied by quick "sound-bytes" of news. Along these same lines, during my childhood USA Today was not a major news source. In fact, when it started to get widespread distribution in the 1980s, there were many naysayers who claimed that it was ruining the newspaper by only giving the basics of the story and not the full explanation.
Although the inverted pyramid has been widespread since the invention of the telegraph, it has always been a source of controversy among journalists and continues to be to this day. If you do a quick google search, you will find that the inverted pyramid was never intended to be a substitute for full documentation of news; it was, as I said last night, a way to get the headlines out there quickly so that people could have access to the important stuff immediately, and return to the full information at a later time. (Remember this was in the days when people did not even have telephones in their homes, much less tvs, internet, or cell phones.) If people were only reading the first few paragraphs, then the advent of USA Today would not have caused the kind of uproar that it did amongst journalists and newsies.
The entire thrust of my assertions about differences in generations and the thirst (or distrust) of attaining news through outlets like Twitter is based on the idea of the neuroplasticity of the brain--what I was calling "brainwaves". This is the way the brain reorganizes itself based on different developmental experiences. Neural pathways are MOST significantly affected during the first few years of life (this is why Ripken's brain surgery at 7 months old was much less problematic for him than had he received the same surgery at 2 years old). During this time period, the pathways can regroup when they find resistance (as they did for Ripken). This is also when a 2nd language is easier to learn, and this is when the pathways are most sensitive to external stimuli. As the human being gets further and further away from the zone of proximal development, the pathways become less and less adaptive. This doesn't mean that they cannot adapt; it means that it takes longer. However, they can still be affected---they continue to reorganize and restructure based on input (however slowly that might be).
Ripken at age 7 months a few weeks before brain surgery
So, you're right--I could like Twitter if I wanted to. BUT, because my brain is not conditioned that way, it would take a considerable effort for me to do so. Just like it is going to take a considerable effort for those who have excess stimulation to sit still long enough to read past keywords. Stimulation can be such a negative thing. In excess, it reconditions those pathways so that they require more and more of it instead of being content with limited excitement. It is for this reason that many child advocates are warning parents against large amounts of tv and computer usage prior to the age of 3 because of the heightened risk of ADHD. This is not a fictional idea that I came up with but one that is well-documented and researched throughout many texts on neuroscience.
Kids & Books
In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study on the use of technological stimulation, i.e. television, computers, videogaming, on children under the age of 6. What they found (and this is before internet usage was widespread) is that kids were getting per/day less than 2 hours of outside play, but engaging in 1.58 hours of screen time. By the age of 21, those kids will have spent on average hundreds of thousands of hours doing video games, reading e-mails, and watching tv, but only 5,000 hours of reading.
Those kids in that study are now approximately 14 years old and those are the kids that educators need to start preparing for now. The students I am seeing this year are obviously less affected than those in the study, just by virtue of the increase in technological domination that has ocurred since 2000. However, they are still products of an age that is very different from one that I grew up in. I am seeing the results of limited book time and increased technological stimulation and those results are not compatible with our current educational system.
Kids & Rapid Fire Information=Not Much Reading
And that leads me to the basic point: by and large, the generation known as the millenials (some say it starts in 1980; others say it starts as far back as 1976) have grown up with the stimulation of rapid fire information and images that did not exist in my childhood: newspapers like USA Today, headline news (whether it was in the home or on tv screens in public places), video games, computer screens, televisions in multiple rooms in the house, televison programming that went beyond the three major networks, tv shows with beautiful pix rather than the fuzzy pictures produced by fickle rabbit ears, etc.
This puts them in the position where unless they work hard to access information in a more traditional way, they are hostage to the neural pathways that have already been developed i.e. information in short, quick doses unecumbered by extraneous words or distractions. People in my position must make changes to our education system or we are going to only reach the top 10% of this generation--those whose pathways are not as severely affected or those who are determined to fight their way in an educational system that was designed for people who were born before the invention of immediate and brief information.
Admitting There's a Problem is the 1st Step
In the end, my comments were not designed to disparage one generation or another. It is simply the way that it is. The time period in which we grow up DOES affect us; there will always be mitigating factors for every individual that either ameliorate or intensify those effects. However, nothing can completely eliminate them(unless one is completely isolated from society). If we truly want to function as a society whose workforce is composed of both extremes--60 year-olds who likely had one tv in their home as a child and 20 year olds who don't remember when phones were plugged into walls---we must acknowledge that the differences in world approaches are a result of a combination of factors outside the locus of individual control.
All of this hoopla just from one comment about social media as a viable medium for information! And yet, I did end up joining twitter afterall. But not because I suddenly "get" it...I still don't. However, I joined because I knew it would be a good way to reach my students--you know the ones--they quickly skim through follow-up e-mails containing clarifications about assignments. The next class, when they realize that their lack of attention resulted in incomplete (or just plain wrong) work, they have the audacity to complain that the instructions were too long for them to follow on their phones. Twitter (no matter how much I despise it) protects me from having to fight that battle, too...

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